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'Good' Worry: How Worrying Well Can Help You Manage Stress

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Worry generally gets a bad rap in modern life. That's because most of us don't know how to worry well -- using it to manage stress instead of letting it cause more stress. Worry is an adaptive survival function: we use our imaginations to anticipate potential dangers, then develop ways to avoid them. Worry helps keep our loved ones and ourselves alive.

If our primeval ancestors walked through the jungle without thinking about it in advance, we probably would not be here now. Those of us who are here now are descended from the best worriers. Not the most frequent worriers, mind you, but the most effective worriers.

Worry not only helps us anticipate dangers, but it also helps us solve problems. We turn these problems over and over in our minds, examining the various issues from different angles. The process is akin to unraveling a tangled ball of yarn: We pull on a loose thread and untangle part of it, and then it gets stuck so we turn the ball over and find another place where we can unwind it some more. Eventually, if we stick with it, we'll probably get the thing unraveled.

Worry is a function of the human imagination, the most powerful force on earth, outside God or nature. Imagination is what most differentiates us from all other creatures. It is what allowed us to survive our prey-animal heritage on the African savannah and evolve into the dominant species on earth.

Imagination has enabled humans to fly, dive deep into the ocean, travel in space, see into the body and even decipher our genetic code. Along with will and hard work, imagination has given us shelter, food and warmth; trains, planes and automobiles; long-distance communication, life-saving medications and every form of art. It also has given us nuclear weapons, chemical pollution, religious persecution and genocide. Clearly it is powerful and is also potentially dangerous if used without skill, ethics or discipline.

The major problem with worry is that it can easily degrade from a problem-solving function into a bad habit, through which we obsess about what we don't want to have happen. We can become hypnotized by our fears and end up feeling unable to pull our inner gaze away from
all the things we dread -- as if we were staring into the eyes of a cobra.

Worse yet, a bad worry habit may insidiously be rewarded in the brain and become self-perpetuating; research shows that over 85 percent of things people worry about never happen. At some deep, unconscious level of the brain, it may conclude that these things did not happen specifically because we worried about them!

Take this fabled example: An old woman walked around her house all day, every day, for years, carrying a bundle of twigs. As a result, she wore a knee-deep groove around the house. Still, she walked from dawn to dusk, day after day. Finally, a neighbor confronted her,
saying, "Excuse me, but we are all wondering why you walk around your house, carrying that bundle of twigs."

"Why, I'm keeping the house safe from tigers," the woman answered.

"But this is Indiana," the neighbor replied, exasperated. "There are no tigers in Indiana!"

"You see!" said the crone.

While this is an apocryphal story, we all wear grooves in our brains when we go over the same thoughts repeatedly. While this behavior can create a bad worry habit, it can also foster a good worry habit if we learn to use it skillfully.

Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, a psychiatrist at UCLA who studies Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), has shown that between the prefrontal cortex (the area behind the forehead) and an area at the junction of the thinking and emotional areas of the brain, there is a brain pathway that he calls the "OCD circuit." Like any brain pathway, the OCD circuit (also called the "worry circuit") becomes larger and faster when used repeatedly. In OCD patients, this track gets very robust as they ruminate obsessively over the same thoughts. Remarkably, Schwartz has shown with brain scans that after only 10 weeks of retraining, OCD patients begin to form a new pathway that redirects mental traffic away from the worry circuit. This "therapy circuit" is a new brain pathway that is created by choosing to focus on new thoughts.

Schwartz has dubbed this phenomenon "self-directed neuroplasticity," using our minds to change our brains. It is absolutely remarkable that we have this capability. As far as researchers are aware, we are the only species that has it. While every known brain can learn, ours appear to be the only ones that can decide whether or not we want to learn. Our brains can literally rewire themselves.

Which all goes to say that it's not that we shouldn't worry. There is plenty to worry about and many important problems to solve in order to make our world a safer and more loving home for us all. Because we have so many real problems that need to be solved that we can no longer afford the indulgence of wasting our imaginations on "bad worry." Bad worry simply creates suffering where none needs to be.

The good news is that because worry is a learned habit, we can learn to worry well. The solution, like the problem itself, lies in how we use our imaginations.

Martin L. Rossman, M.D. is a pioneer of mind/body medicine and healing,
and he is the author of "The Worry Solution."